Anti-coal initiative not on Whatcom Co. ballot

BELLINGHAM — An initiative that would have blocked the transport of coal through Bellingham will not be on the November ballot in Whatcom County.

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder on Friday granted the city of Bellingham an injunction that blocks the measure from the ballot, The Bellingham Herald reported in Friday’s newspaper.

Before making his ruling, Snyder listened to legal arguments from attorneys representing initiative backers, the city and BNSF Railway Co.

Snyder said the initiative exceeded the scope of city government’s power and would have, among other things, attempted to nullify state and federal laws.

Besides the public expense, allowing an election to proceed would be misleading to the voters, Snyder added.

He said the initiative would “give the people in the community the impression they are doing something they cannot … It clearly would diminish faith in city government.”

Before he made his ruling, Snyder questioned the attorneys.

The judge reminded Assistant City Attorney James Erb that the city had to show “irrevocable harm” to its interests to meet the legal standard for issuance of an injunction. He asked Erb to spell out what harm would result to the city if the initiative stayed on the ballot.

Erb replied that the city would have to pay the county the costs associated with adding the measure to the ballot, but he did not know how much that would be.

Snyder then noted that the City Council is discussing placing the coal issue on the ballot and incurring those costs anyhow, although the measure that the council is considering would be a non-binding advisory measure.

Erb replied that the harm to the city would go beyond dollars.

“More important than the cost is the damage to the initiative process in allowing an invalid measure to go forward,” Erb said.

Breean Beggs, representing the initiative backers, argued that in many Washington state cases, courts have preferred to review an initiative’s legal validity only after voters have approved it.

Even when initiatives have been struck down after passage, they have served a useful purpose in making the will of the voters clear to lawmakers, Beggs said. He cited the 1999 initiative that rolled back car tab fees and made Tim Eyman famous. That measure was ruled unconstitutional, but legislators then moved to roll back the fees with a new state law.

But Snyder said state courts also have struck down ballot measures in advance, when it could be shown that they were clearly beyond the scope of the initiative power.

Beggs argued citizens have the right to vote on a measure that met the legal requirements for a place on the ballot.

“The people have the right under the Washington constitution to vote, and under the City Charter to vote,” Beggs said. “All the people are asking for is the power to vote … Their government has kind of turned against them on it.”

Snyder said he was well within established state precedents in blocking an initiative that attempted to give the city legal powers it cannot exercise under state and federal law.

“The city has no right to act illegally,” Snyder said. “The city has the legal right to come to court and say, `Don’t make us do something that is against the law.”’

On Monday, Aug. 6, the council will consider a proposal to allow citizens to express their opinion on the coal shipments in a non-binding advisory vote.

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